Phil Robson: Portrait in Extreme
Author: Andy Robson
Portrait in Extreme
Partly nurtured by lockdown, but definitely inspired by his new life amid the lakes and castles of the Republic of Ireland’s midlands, this is Robson as sharp and versatile as ever. One moment we’re spooked amid the nasty gnash and slash of ‘Rumours Abound, Energy Persists’, the next we’re beguiled by an acoustic Irish air, replete with Christine Tobin’s wordless vox on the aptly titled ‘New Turf’. Yet this modulates into a percussively kinetic skronk, as Robson’s New York years crash back into his current idyll. So it’s no surprise when a samba turns into seagulls on ‘Straight Story’ (no story’s ever straight with Robson) or on one of the songs of the year, ‘So Many Bees’, a long solo meditation, spins on its heels through wind chimes, a siren’s voice, an epic chord and, well, a host of bees. If that all sounds like too many handbrake turns at once, it’s Robson’ s gift to find what he calls ‘the fluidity of inter connectedness’, to discover the logic between polarities. Oh, yeah, and he still rocks.
Jazz Journal review and interview
Phil Robson – from New York to New Turf
The guitarist’s surprisingly rather experimental new album ranges from jazz to Irish folk to Black Sabbath
The title of guitarist Phil Robson’s current EP release, Portrait In Extreme, recorded as the pandemic raged, is beautifully apt. “I was trying in a fun way to convey the extremes of everything that was going on because in the music world we’d gone from 90 to nought in a fairly swift time,” he explains. “And my own situation also radically changed because I’d been living in New York City – or actually in Jersey City, just across the Hudson River – and I’m now in the countryside of County Roscommon [in Ireland] so that was quite a jump. I joke that we’ve swapped skyscrapers for cows!”
Like many musicians and non-musicians alike Robson found the pandemic and associated lockdowns demoralising. “I was struggling to keep my motivation,” he admits. “And because I live in a rural area it’s very difficult to get high-speed internet so I couldn’t do live streams. I did do some videos but it was almost like I was back in the 90s where I had to leave them uploading all night so that was frustrating. So musically speaking I was very much on my own and I ground to a bit of a halt with practice.”
On most tracks on Portrait In Extreme Robson plays over drum loops supplied by Irish drummer David Lyttle. “I had a clear idea about the things I was going to try so I asked him for specific things,” he says. “I sent him tempos and a description of the vibe I was trying to get with each one – but with freedom for him to be himself as well. And he sent me these really fabulous loops which I chopped up and then I put my parts down. And then I went back to his loops and if I needed more variation I used other bits from the same loops. Most of them were about a minute long so I had more than a few bars which was great.”
Robson enthuses about Lyttle’s capabilities. “He’s very adaptable and really nice to work with. And a serious jazz musician. He loves all aspects of the tradition and because of that he’s got a real depth to his playing.”
Robson acknowledges that he has missed face-to-face interaction with other musicians. “My God, I can’t tell you how much. There’s no substitute for that. But, still, it was lovely to have something to work with and the things David sent me were exciting. And I was also using this software called Ableton that has lots of sounds and effects so experimenting with this new toy and not quite knowing what was going to come out was my substitute for playing with real people. It was a classic lockdown project and I learned loads so it was a great experience.”
In the future Robson hopes to use the software more. “It’s early days and I’m still learning how to use it. I’d like to incorporate it into a live setting but I haven’t quite figured out how you can do this and play guitar at the same time – a basic question but a fairly important one!”
On Rumours Abound, Energy Persists Robson creates a strikingly disturbing soundscape. “It was meant to represent this whole [pandemic] thing coming in, from the end of 2019,” he says. “It’s a little snapshot of how life was and trying to capture that ominous feeling.”
And the Energy Persists part of the title? “I was trying to convey people trying to carry on. And also have a bit of fun because there’s a slight American sound to the crazy guitar stuff on that track which is reminiscent of people far greater than me. Star Spangled Banner and all that!” he laughs, alluding to Jimi Hendrix.
Robson’s playing on New Turf has the melodic beauty of a traditional Irish air. “Yeah, I was trying to capture something of that,” he agrees. “Wherever I am I always listen to things from that place so I was listening to a lot of really lovely Irish music like The Gloaming. So it’s the influence of being here and what’s going on.”
Singer-songwriter Christine Tobin, Robson’s life-partner, sings, wordlessly, on the track. “She had freedom to change it but that was a written melody,” says Robson. “There’s a little violin part playing with her which is not a real violin – I did it with the Ableton thing. And the later part of New Turf, which is a huge contrast, is the one drum groove I did myself and it was done by literally tapping on a table and then messing around with sounds on Ableton.”
‘I was a metaller through and through when I was about 10 so Black Sabbath were my favourite band. The thing I liked most about them and bands like Led Zeppelin was they were so clearly coming out of blues’
The Masters is a powerful tribute to Black Sabbath. “I was a metaller through and through when I was about 10 so Black Sabbath were my favourite band. The thing I liked most about them and bands like Led Zeppelin was they were so clearly coming out of blues and the love of blues is so genuine. And I love the slow tempos that you would never get in a modern rock or heavy metal band. Things like Cornucopia on Black Sabbath Vol 4 which is so slow it’s almost a dirge. I just love the gritty slowness.”
Alas, Robson never saw Sabbath live. “I was a little too young for the original Black Sabbath but I saw Ozzy [Osbourne] live when I was about 13 in Derby, my hometown. It was incredibly loud – I couldn’t hear for two days! – but very exciting.”
Robson actually sings on The Masters although his vocals are mixed very low. “Well, that was a bit of fun, really,” he chuckles. “I can take a stab at emulating the overall sound-world but I can’t take a stab at emulating Ozzy!”
Robson may have been a heavy-metal fan but at the age of 18 and without being a graduate he enrolled in the postgraduate jazz course at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London. “Though I had this background of Black Sabbath I’d also been into jazz pretty seriously since I was about 14.
“The modern system of jazz education wasn’t in place at the time so that was really the only jazz course and I managed to pass the audition, which bypassed having to have a degree. The course was really valuable. I had great teachers and met some great musical friends but it was over too quickly, really. It was one year and then I was hurled out: ‘Go and be a musician, son!’”
Which Robson duly did, one of his key subsequent bands being Partisans, which formed in 1996. “We were very good mates and I have endless fun memories of tours and gigs we did,” he reminisces. “And I’m very proud of the albums. That band was together a long time and the nicest thing about it was that it was more than the sum of four parts. Myself and [saxophonist] Julian [Siegel] were the writers but the contribution to the material was massive from the other two guys [bassist Thaddeus Kelly and drummer Gene Calderazzo] and the tunes got massively changed by playing them.”
Robson also played in the BBC Big Band for 10 years. I wonder if he felt it musically constraining to play in that band as opposed to the more cutting-edge Partisans. “It got more that way as it went on,” he concedes, “but when I joined it there were lots of exciting guests, like Joe Lovano and Phil Woods and Vince Mendoza – we did two days in Abbey Road with him, playing his music.
“And the more conservative end of it, I got a kick out of the discipline of that. And I like playing a lot of different styles which you can hear as a thread through all my music.”
Once, in 2009, on a Friday Night With Jonathan Ross special, Robson backed Barbra Streisand. “The nicest part was a long dress rehearsal where we played about 10 tunes because she wanted to play through all the options to see what she would pick as the two [for the show]. Despite the fact that her entourage were trying to have me living in abject terror because I’d got dark blue trousers on instead of black it was actually very relaxed and she was very friendly and very nice and sang really great. It was lovely.”
The singer that Robson has accompanied most often has been Christine Tobin. “She writes her music on the piano so the biggest challenge for me is to find a way of capturing what she’s written on the piano and try to make it sound as full as possible. Which is the biggest problem with guitar in jazz as a harmonic instrument – you’re never going to be able to match what a piano player can do but I’ve learned over the years how to fill out the sound behind her and play the right things in the gaps.”
In 2015 Robson, with Tobin, relocated to New York. “I’m always trying to expand my horizons and learn more and delve deeper and deeper into the music and it was a means of doing that.”
It was, however, a bold move to leave the relative security of being an established figure in British jazz to try and make a living in a city where the competition for gigs is brutal. “Most people would be doing that when they’re in their early 20s but I was doing it in my mid-40s,” reflects Robson. “Basically you have to start again so it was very challenging but super exciting as well and it was a great experience.”
The contrast with his current home county of Roscommon, where the largest town has fewer than 6,000 inhabitants, is almost comical. “I always loved extremes – hence the name of the album! I love big cities and I love the countryside so living here doesn’t seem weird to me,” he asserts.
Currently Portrait In Extreme is only available digitally, on Lyte Records, which is owned by Lyttle. “It would be nice to have some form of hard copy I could sell on gigs but we decided to put it out as a digital thing initially to see if there was any interest,” says Robson. “And I’m delighted that people have been very positive so I’m really happy about that.”
The Jazzmann – 3.5 star review of Portrait in Extreme
An album that reflects the broader polarities of Robson’s life, including the musical ‘extremes’ of a musician equally influenced by both jazz and rock.
“Portrait in Extreme”
(Lyte Records – Digital Release)
Phil Robson – guitars, electronics, electric bass, vocals, David Lyttle – drums, Christine Tobin – voice
Arguably best known for his co-leadership (with reeds player Julian Siegel) of the mighty Partisans guitarist Phil Robson is a highly versatile musician, with roots deep in both jazz and rock. He has featured regularly on the Jazzmann web pages, both as a member of Partisans and also as a solo artist of some stature.
Having established himself on the UK music scene as a member of Partisans Robson commenced his solo career with a couple of trio releases for The Babel label in the early years of the current century. “Impish” appeared in 2002 and featured bassist Dave Whitford and drummer Asaf Sirkis, with guest pianist John Taylor also appearing on three pieces. The follow up, “Screenwash” (2003), teamed him with the American rhythm pairing of bassist James Genus and drummer Billy Hart. Both of these are excellent albums and highly recommended.
His Six Strings and The Beat project was a combo that successfully combined his guitar with a string quartet plus the bass of Peter Herbert and the drums of Partisans colleague Gene Calderazzo. The album of the same name, released in 2008, is favourably reviewed here;
Robson has also fronted a quintet featuring the acclaimed American saxophonist Mark Turner, this line up recording “The Immeasurable Code” album in 2011. Review here;
In 2015 Robson returned to the trio format, but this time of the organ variety with the guitarist being joined by Hammond specialist Ross Stanley, plus the faithful Calderazzo at the drums. The resultant album, “The Cut Off Point” is reviewed here;
Robson also works closely with his partner, the vocalist Christine Tobin and plays a key role in all of her projects.
As a sideman his list of credits is impressive and he has appeared on albums by saxophonists Rachael Cohen and Paul Booth, pianist Liam Noble, bassists Michael Janisch and Alec Dankworth, drummer Jeff Williams and jazz french horn player Jim Rattigan. Robson has also worked with the great American saxophonist Dave Liebman and has occupied the guitar chair in the BBC Big Band. It’s an impressive and diverse CV.
Originally from Derby Robson subsequently moved to London and graduated from the Guildhall School of Music & Drama. He lived and worked in the capital for many years, establishing himself as a leading presence on the London jazz scene. He and Tobin then lived in Margate for a while before emigrating to New York City in 2015, remaining there until March 2020 and the beginning of the pandemic. The couple then returned to Tobin’s native Ireland, settling in County Roscommon in the Irish Midlands.
During their time in New York Robson and Tobin quickly established themselves on the city’s jazz scene and performed with many of America’s leading jazz musicians. It’s unfortunate that this period of Robson’s career has not been documented on disc, with this digital only release representing Robson’s first solo recording since 2015.
“Portrait in Extreme” was recorded at home during 2021 and represents Robson’s ‘lockdown album’. It was financed by a bursary from the Arts Council of Ireland (An Chomhairle Ealaíon) and appears on Lyte Records, the label owned by the Irish drummer, composer and bandleader David Lyttle.
It’s essentially a genuine solo project with Robson overdubbing himself on guitars, electronics, electric bass and voice. The album was recorded using Ableton Live 11 software and includes contributions from Lyttle on drums and Tobin on vocals.
The title references the differing extremes of life in metropolitan New York and rural Ireland but also reflects the broader polarities of Robson’s life, including the musical ‘extremes’ of a musician equally influenced by both jazz and rock.
In his album notes Robson explains;
“I’ve often felt strong polarities in my work, life & the world around me. From within this perspective, I now want to draw upon & embrace the elements connecting the ‘extremes’, as my inspiration in my playing & compositions. The Covid era has given me a great deal of time to imagine how I want my music to sound in the future & to reflect on & interpret my experiences. To reference possible polarities again, I love John Zorn’s ‘Naked City’ & Chopin nocturnes, the Curlew mountains & the streets of Hackney, Miles Davis & Black Sabbath! By embracing the fluidity of interconnectedness, I want to focus my outer reaches into something homogeneous & listen to my inner voice without limits.”
He also quotes the author Kurt Vonnegut, a significant influence for Robson and for other musicians;
“I want to stand as close to the edge as I can without going over. Out on the edge you see all kinds of things you can’t see from the center.”
At around half an hour in duration it’s debatable whether “Portrait in Extreme” constitutes an EP or a full length album. I’ll go with the latter, given that there are eight separate pieces featuring an appropriately broad (‘extreme’) range of music, with influences including jazz, rock, folk, hip hop, ambient, electronica and more. The album cover features Robson standing in what appears to be a wintry Irish landscape with the New York skyline projected behind him. It’s an accurate visual depiction of what the listener can hear in the music.
The album commences with the dystopian electronic soundscapes of “Rumour Abounds, Energy Persists”, with Tobin’s breathy, whispered wordless vocals almost subsumed in the electronic soundwash. Towards the close the jagged, angry shards of guitar crash in like a metallic meteor shower. An intriguing and unsettling start.
“Callow Freeway” finds Robson adopting a more orthodox jazz guitar sound as he solos fluently above Lyttle’s skittering drum accompaniment. Reading the album notes one gets the impression that Lyttle’s drums were recorded in isolation and looped. Regardless of the mechanics the overall effect is reminiscent of Robson’s early trio albums, “Impish” and “Screenwash” and of “Bright Size Life” era Pat Metheny.
“So Many Bees” begins as a solo guitar meditation, unfolding gently, slowly and organically at first, before being hijacked by electronically generated noises simulating the sounds of windchimes and of a swarm of angry bees.
Electronics combine with more conventional guitar sounds on “Straight Story”, which also includes a contribution from Lyttle at the drums. Initially it’s upbeat, almost samba like, but once again the waters are muddied by the introduction of sampled sounds, in this case those of angry birds, possibly seagulls, possibly corvids.
“I’ve Got This” combines the sounds of guitars with heavily processed hip-hop style beats, these again courtesy of Lyttle. It’s a piece that seems to hark back to Robson’s Brooklyn days.
The introduction to the aptly titled “New Turf” features the sound of acoustic guitars, the folkish quality of the music enhanced by Tobin’s beautiful wordless vocals. But again the rural Irish idyll is punctured by the intrusion of electronically generated beats and the siren like wail of an electric guitar. As on several other pieces the memories of Robson’s urban life seem to intrude on his now bucolic existence in rural Ireland. Or maybe it’s just a case of loving both lifestyles, as his liner notes suggest, making it perfectly logical for both to be depicted within the course of a single composition – “Portrait in Extreme” indeed.
That said “Re-Valley” focusses on a single mood courtesy of a lush arrangement that features the warm, syrupy, Metheny-like sound of Robson’s guitar above a backdrop of sampled strings and Lyttles’s softly brushed drums. Robson seems to have found peace at last – but wait…
The final track, “The Masters”, is an obvious Black Sabbath homage, even the title referencing that of “Master of Reality”, arguably the Sabs’ heaviest ever album. Robson cranks up his guitars to deliver a highly convincing Tony Iommi impression, and he’s pretty good as Geezer too on electric bass. Lyttle fills the Bill Ward role and Phil even steps into Ozzy’s shoes to deliver the four line lyric reproduced below;
“Sitting on my throne, I am the master, of everything you see and hear
Everything I say you must believe now, united in a state of fear
And now, you must follow, my plan, you little man
Everything is fake, so you must come and take, your place now, Oh yeah”
It’s all great fun, but there’s a serious message within that brief stanza that says so much about the state of the modern world.
As Robson’s first solo release for seven years “Portrait in Extreme” represents a very welcome addition to his catalogue. Hopefully it will act as a spur and as the world begins to return to normal he and Tobin can begin collaborating and recording with other musicians in a band situation again – assuming that they wish to do so. Let’s hope it’s not such a long wait until we hear from Robson on record again.
A confession – Phil actually alerted me to the release of this music in March and it’s taken me a long time to get round to writing about it, so my apologies to him for that. But I’d urge readers to check out this intriguing set of new music which is available via;
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